Apple Watch Series 6 review: The best, most feature-rich smartwatch you can buy

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Apple Watch Series 6

“The Apple Watch Series 6 is the most complete smartwatch package you can buy, and if you want the very best of everything Apple's wearable offers, it's the one to get.”
  • Comprehensive health and activity tracking
  • Reliable software
  • Always-on screen adds visual appeal
  • New blue, red, and gold colors look great
  • Apple S2 chip is a powerhouse
  • ECG and SpO2 measurements have limited real-world use
MSRP $429.00

In my opening paragraphs to the Apple Watch SE review, I asked how Apple could improve on the already excellent Apple Watch formula, and the answer was to lower the price, which is where the Apple Watch SE succeeds. The question now becomes, where does that leave the $389-plus Apple Watch Series 6? How does it tempt you away from buying the SE, or to upgrade from a previous-generation model?

Interestingly, it does so in a typically watch-like fashion, while making sure the nerdier among us also get our fill of new tech.

Design

Apple has not changed the look of the Apple Watch Series 6 from the Series 5, but it has done what many watchmakers do when they hit upon a popular design: They change the colors and introduce a special edition. You can buy the aluminum Apple Watch Series 6 with a blue case, a new gold case, or in a special (PRODUCT) RED finish, which joins the existing silver and space gray models. Along with the new case, colors come two new strap designs, the Solo Loop and Braided Solo Loop, plus new colors for many of the existing straps. (The straps are, of course, backward-compatible to previous models.)

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You can see the blue version in our photos, and it’s very pretty. It’s a dark blue and therefore contrasts well with other colors, and isn’t as showy as the cheerful (PRODUCT) RED version. Match it with the right strap, and you have a modern, sporty watch that’s more interesting to look at than the space gray or silver versions. It’s the 44mm version on my wrist, and a 40mm version is also available for smaller wrists. The size and weight are practically identical to the Series 5, apart from a tiny, imperceptible reduction in depth.

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My choice of strap here is the Sport Loop in Deep Navy (because it has a hint of the Tag Heuer Formula 1 Gulf special edition about it), which is made from a soft nylon weave material and secured by a hook-and-loop system, and immensely comfortable. The gently curved ceramic and sapphire case back adds to this comfort, and the smoothed off screen and sides mean it happily slips under sleeves. I’ve worn the Apple Watch SE and now the Series 6 for two weeks now and have not once felt the need to take it off due to it being hot, scratchy, sweaty, or generally annoying.

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The cheapest Series 6 is made from 100% recycled aluminum, but you can spend more to buy a stainless steel model or a “Watch Edition” in titanium. So should you? These materials will be harder wearing to a degree, but they are both heavier than the aluminum model, and very few will tell the difference between the three unless informed of it. Much of the Apple Watch Series 6’s usefulness comes from wearing it all day. Adding weight may make this less likely to happen, so think twice about spending more.

Always-on display

Introduced on the Series 5, the always-on screen is the feature most will consider the reason to spend more and get the Apple Watch Series 6 rather than the Apple Watch SE. Rather than the screen going dark when it goes to sleep after not being used for a minute or two, the watch face subtly changes design and dims so the time remains visible. Apart from the improved usefulness, this makes the Apple Watch look more visually interesting on your wrist.

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I love the way the watch faces change. It’s not a sudden alteration, but rather a slow animated morph between the main watch face and its ambient alternative. On some faces, like the new GMT face, the change is almost imperceptible, while on others like the new Artist face the change is considerable as it drains the color from the screen entirely. The Series 6’s screen is sharp and detailed, and also brighter than the Series 5’s screen, and I never once had to alter the brightness levels to see it outside.

The always-on screen is really all about the visuals because as living with the SE proved, the Apple Watch’s raise-to-wake gesture is so immediate and reliable, that the time is always there when you need it. Having something on the screen all the time changes the way the Apple Watch looks on your wrist, from a piece of soulless technology to something with life and movement. Apple’s varied collection of watch faces are highly customizable, too, and they add a further element of personalization outside of the strap and case color choices.

The always-on screen is a reason to buy the Apple Watch Series 6 over the Apple Watch SE, but it’s because of the fashion, not the utility.

SpO2 monitoring

“Blood Oxygen app measurements are not intended for medical use.” Not my words, but the words of Apple, taken from its explainer page on the use of the blood oxygen (SpO2) measurement tool on the Apple Watch Series 6.

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Medically, pulse oximetry checks if there is enough oxygen in the blood, and is important for people who have had a heart attack, have lung disease, asthma, or other respiratory problems. That’s why SpO2 helps detect severe complications from COVID-19; but when a medical-grade pulse oximeter is used rather than a consumer product like the Apple Watch. In this article on the benefits of owning such a device at home, Yale School of Medicine’s Dr. Denyse Lutchmansingh said, “unless a patient has true lung disease, there is no need to use pulse oximetry monitoring.”

If it’s not meant for medical use, what good is it? Working on the basis that outside a medical setting some data is better than no data, blood oxygen levels can initially help identify sleep problems like snoring and sleep apnea, be used to generate recovery time recommendations after exercise, or to assess altitude acclimatization in hikers or mountaineers.

Taking a spot reading on the Apple Watch Series 6 takes 15 seconds and requires nothing except tapping the Start button in the associated app. It can also be set up to take periodical measurements, and will alert you if it notices a drastic alteration. Looked at this way, the SpO2 reading taken by the Apple Watch is one more tool in its already comprehensively equipped medical bag.

When you remember this, it makes sense to consider the SpO2 monitoring a silent feature, and not something you’ll actually use on a daily basis or regularly take note of the readings.  It, along with other health features, gradually creates a picture of your overall condition, monitors trends, and could quickly let you know if things dramatically change.

Taking an ECG

You can take an electrocardiogram (ECG) using the Apple Watch Series 6, just like you could on the Series 4 and Series 5. This feature is primarily designed to provide data to your doctor and doesn’t detect a heart attack, blood clots, strokes, or other heart-related conditions. Not my words, but the words of Apple on its support page for the ECG feature. Seeing a pattern here?

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This said, the ECG is more useful than the blood oxygen measurement. It’s approved for use in the U.S. and the U.K. (but only for those over the age of 22, apparently), and Apple states it produces readings similar to ECG machines prescribed by your doctor. So if you have been diagnosed with problems that may impact your heart, the Apple Watch may be of some assistance. Again, it can also be helpful as an early warning system when used with other health features on the Apple Watch, but reports can be found that question the validity of any warnings that do come from the watch.

It takes 30 seconds to perform the ECG, and requires you to be seated and resting in a particular way, and to touch the Digital Crown throughout the recording. Results are instantly shown and can be saved for further examination by your doctor. It has worked consistently for me, just like the blood oxygen measurements, and the app is both clearly laid out and attractively animated.

The ECG is another “nice to have” feature that could, in extreme circumstances, be of genuine use in a medical emergency. For most people, and for most of the time, you won’t notice it’s there. Neither it nor the SpO2 measurements are reasons to buy the Apple Watch Series 6, but it’s somewhat comforting to know they’re there.

Fitness and health monitoring

I’ve gone into more detail about the Apple Watch’s workout plans, the handwashing feature, and the sleep tracking in my Apple Watch SE review, and as this is all applicable to the Apple Watch Series 6, do take a moment to read the sections on these aspects in that review, as my experience has been identical here.

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To quickly reiterate, the Apple Watch is a superb everyday activity tracker. The Activity Rings system is clear and motivational for people who want to up their daily activity and maintain a healthy lifestyle, and the data provided in Apple’s Health app is clear and simple. It’s not for the serious athlete concerned with run cadence, interval training, or super accurate long-distance heart rate monitoring.

This approach is reflected in the sleep tracking feature, introduced in watchOS 7. The data provided after wearing the Apple Watch all night is really only duration, with no information on sleep stages, interruptions, or quality. It’s just another piece of the health puzzle for Apple Health to use to keep you informed, rather than bombard you with in-depth data.

Battery and performance

The always-on screen does affect battery life, though perhaps not as seriously as you fear. The Series 6 can last a day and a half on a single charge, which includes all health-monitoring features such as SpO2 monitoring active, and sleep tracking overnight. It consistently lasts to the afternoon on the second day, at which time it suggests entering its low power mode to last for several more hours but with limited features.

If you add an hour’s fitness tracking (not using GPS), it drains the battery by about 10% further, which seems to shorten the average use time by about an hour. If you use GPS — the Apple Watch Series 6 has stand-alone GPS so you can use it on a run without your phone — expect the battery life to be affected far more. Turn the watch off overnight and two full working days is achievable.

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Charging the Apple Watch if you want to track sleep does become a pain. It takes about 80 minutes to fully charge from zero, which is a sizable chunk of time to find if you’re not placing it on its charger overnight. Incidentally, there’s no charging brick included with the Apple Watch, only the USB cable with a magnetic charging plinth.

The Apple Watch Series 6 has Apple’s new S6 processor inside, promising an improvement in performance over the Series 5 and the Apple Watch SE, which use the older S5 processor. The Series 6’s speed is obvious. Navigating watchOS 7 feels like it’s being done at 1.5x, because everything is just so snappy. It’s the little things that make you notice. It’s faster recognizing when you’re washing your hands than the SE, where the timer usually showed up on the screen between 10 and 15 seconds into your 20-second ablutions, but it’s 10 seconds and under on the Series 6. Tapping complications on the watch face gives instant access to your data, with barely any lag for the lightning-fast animations to cover up.

These aspects are really only noticeable when you compare back-to-back, but it’s those who are upgrading from a much older Apple Watch that will really notice. if you’re coming to the Series 6 from the Series 4 or even earlier, you’ll think Apple has strapped a big turbo to the side of the processor it’ll feel so fast.

Living with the Apple Watch Series 6

Living with the Apple Watch Series 6 on a daily basis is not all that different to living with the Series 5, apart from the slight speed increase you notice at first. It’s also practically identical to living with the Apple Watch SE, leaving aside the always-on screen. The Series 6 has all the same helpful features from Apple Pay support, comprehensive music controls, the walkie-talkie function, reminders to stand up every hour, the Breathe relaxation exercise, Apple Maps, and Siri.

You can buy a Series 6 with a cellular connection if you want to use data services without carrying around your phone, but this will cost you extra each month. Without it, the Apple Watch still handles calls provided it’s connected to your phone, and the speaker is surprisingly loud too. However, callers don’t always hear you well when you’re outside. The notifications it receives are clear and concise, and almost all can be interacted with in some way.

Because wearing and using the Series 6 on a daily basis is so similar to the Apple Watch SE, do check my review of that watch, which I wore before the Series 6, for further insight into what it’s like for general use.

Price and availability

The Apple Watch Series 6 in aluminum with a Sport Loop, Solo Loop, or Sport Band costs $399 for the 40mm or $429 for the 44mm model. Add Cellular connectivity and this becomes $499 and $529. If you want the Braided Solo Loop strap you must add $50 to both these prices. Stainless steel Series 6 models start at $699, titanium models from $849, and Hermés models from $1,249.

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In the U.K. a 40mm aluminum Series 6 is 379 British pounds or 479 pounds with cellular connectivity, while the 44mm model is 409 pounds without, or 479 pounds with cellular. Stainless steel models start at 649 pounds, titanium models from 799 pounds, and the Hermés models from 1,199 pounds.

All are available through Apple’s own online store, plus most models can be purchased through Amazon and other retailers, while carriers also offer the cellular models.

Our take

The Series 6 is Apple’s most complete smartwatch yet, and although there are several features you probably won’t use all that often, if you want the ultimate smartwatch package available on your wrist, then this is it. What if you own an Apple Watch Series 5? There’s no really compelling reason to upgrade, unless you absolutely must have the blue, red, or new gold case finish. It’s probably better to wait and see what the Series 7 brings next year.

If you’ve only ever used a Wear OS smartwatch, especially connected to an iPhone, the Apple Watch will surprise you with its performance, reliability, and capability. If you’ve never used a smartwatch connected to an iPhone before and are tempted, the Apple Watch is the only way to go.

Is there a better alternative?

No. The Apple Watch Series 6 is the best smartwatch you can buy, but before you do so, ask yourself if you think you’ll ever need the ECG or SpO2 readings, and whether the always-on screen is essential. If the answer is no to any of these, do take a look at the Apple Watch SE, as it’s also excellent and will save you some money.

The only realistic contender if you don’t own an iPhone and don’t plan to buy one is the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3, which beats smartwatches that have Google’s Wear OS software with its greater usability and slick control system. Samsung also offers two sizes, and the Galaxy Watch 3 has both an ECG and SpO2 meter as well.

How long will it last?

At least three years. The old Apple Watch Series 3 has received the latest watchOS 7 software, to give you an idea of how long the Series 6 will continue to be supported, for example. The Series 6 is the better buy over the SE when it comes to longevity, as it has all the top features already inside. The aluminum case isn’t especially tough, but provided it’s treated well it won’t get damaged easily, while the Apple Watch Series 6 is water-resistant to 50 meters and swim-proof, too.

Should you buy one?

Yes, it’s the best, most feature-packed Apple Watch available this year, and the best smartwatch you can buy if you have an iPhone.

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